- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

CHAMAN, Pakistan Girding for a U.S. ground attack, Afghanistan's Taliban fighters are arming supporters along both sides of the border and ordering people to evacuate towns and villages in the area, residents and Pakistani officials said yesterday.
Villagers who live along Pakistan's long, porous border also said the Taliban has dug trenches and fortified positions along the Afghan side of the frontier. On Friday, Pakistan's Frontier Corps was digging its own trenches on the low, drab hills that overlook the road to the border.
The border has been tense since Pakistan, once the Taliban's staunchest ally, pledged to cooperate in U.S.-led efforts to flush out or kill Osama bin Laden, who lives in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban.
He is the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
Qila Leva, whose dirt-poor population of 200 straddles both sides of the border, is one of the villages ordered evacuated by the Taliban.
"About six days ago, some Taliban came and told us to leave," said Hadi Shad Khan, 50, whose home is on the Pakistani side of the line. "They said they wanted to build fortifications here."
In the towns of Vesh and Spin Boldak, which are near the border on the Afghan side and have survived economically thanks to a flourishing smuggling trade, residents said they had been told the same thing by Taliban fighters.
"We have been told to leave for our own safety," said Abdul Bari, a shopkeeper in Spin Boldak who runs his business out of a ship's cargo container. He spoke along the no-man's land separating the two countries.
The Taliban appeared to be making preparations in case any U.S. assault came on the ground at this southern stretch of the border near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, where the terrain is less mountainous. U.S. military leaders have hinted at imminent ground action after days of bombardment of Afghanistan, but have not said what form it will take.
In Chaman, whose estimated 400,000 people live off the smuggling trade with Vesh and Spin Boldak, many businesses that trade in smuggled goods such as Japanese consumer items, soap and tires have been moving inventories from warehouses in Afghanistan back into Pakistan.
Businessmen in Chaman, who travel daily into Afghanistan without passports or other travel documents, said the Taliban were insisting that merchants remove flammable items such as fuel, rubber tires and textiles presumably to keep them from feeding fires caused by U.S. munitions.
Rumors have been widespread that the Taliban are stockpiling weapons in Vesh and Spin Boldak because they believe the Americans would be reluctant to attack targets so close to the border with Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the anti-terrorism campaign. No one, however, has seen convincing evidence of weapons being stored there.
Col. Mohammed Sarwar, commander of Pakistan's Frontier Corps, confirmed yesterday that he had met with Taliban officials the day before to warn the Afghans against trying to clear Qila Leva and other territories that belong to Pakistan.
"They asked the villagers to leave a few days ago," Col. Sarwar said. "We told them to stop doing this."
In Spin Boldak, Alauddin Ayatullah, a young Taliban preacher at the local mosque, said loyalists were being given arms. "We have arms and we are circulating them. But we are not giving them to just anyone," Mr. Ayatullah said.

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